Through reading this blog, you’ve realized there are too many variables that go into making commercial olive oil. You’ve decided to cut out the middleman entirely by growing your own olive tree and harvesting their fruit yourself. You’re just not sure about pruning your tree. How do you do it?
To prune an olive tree, make sure you do the following:
- Get the right tools
- Prune to shape the tree
- Focus on maintaining the lateral branches, cutting away only the weaker ones
- Remove most vertical branches
- Trim off suckers
In this article, we will elaborate on the above steps, providing detailed instructions on what to cut, what to keep, and what to use for the job. If this is your first foray into pruning your olive tree, you’ll feel like a pro by the time you’re done reading.
Pruning Your Olive Tree: Steps to Follow
Step 1: Get the Right Equipment and Tools
You may own a couple of old pieces of tree-cutting equipment that perhaps you got from a friend or family member. You may also have nothing and you’re starting from scratch.
In both situations, you need not just any ol’ tools, but the right ones for pruning your olive tree. Tool misuse will lead to you cutting off way more of your olive tree than intended. Older tools might also not chop through the branches of your tree like you need.
So which tools should you add to your arsenal? Let’s go over them all now. Again, make sure you buy each of these tools new.
While hand saws have an application in woodworking, you can also use a specialized version for gardening. This saw will have a long metal blade with serrated teeth and a lengthy handle for easy maneuvering even if you have a taller olive tree. Most of these saws have blades of at least 15 inches long.
Blades may be flexible or rigid, but you want the latter. After all, it would be very annoying to attempt to prune a tall branch with a wiggly, wobbly hand saw. Instead, a rigid hand saw will deliver the kinds of reliable results you need when pruning your olive tree.
Your hand saw, while useful, shouldn’t be the first tool you reach for when pruning. You only want to use it for trimming within the tree in dense areas where other tools won’t suffice. The diameter of the branches you cut with the hand saw should be an inch to three inches.
You can also use a chainsaw for pruning your olive tree, but this will happen even more seldom than cutting with the hand saw. When operating a chainsaw, you always want to make sure you’re wearing the right clothing (preferably something heavy-duty), gloves, goggles, and a helmet. This gear will keep you safe should an incident occur.
Chainsaws are heavy, and with pruning, you sometimes have to lift your saw above your head for lengthy periods. You want to ensure you buy the lightest chainsaw you can, then. If you find your chainsaw feels heavier than anticipated, you probably want to think about returning it.
Even if you do have a chainsaw that’s a comfortable weight, all the moving about you’ll do will exhaust your arms sooner than later. Make sure you don’t push yourself at that point, because that’s how injuries happen. If you lose control of your chainsaw, not only could you ruin your olive tree, but you could get seriously injured or even killed. Yes, the gear you should wear can help to a point, but not always.
When do you even want to reach for the chainsaw when pruning your olive tree? If you have an old tree that hasn’t been cared for, the branches can grow especially long and big. Cutting with your hand saw will take all day, but a chainsaw can slice these heavy branches off relatively fast. Unless you’re doing significant cutting, though, you can leave the chainsaw in your garage. If you tend to your olive tree regularly, you should almost never need it.
Also, as a final word of caution, you always want to make sure the ground beneath you is steady. This will keep you upright when operating the chainsaw, hopefully preventing incidents.
The most common tool you’re going to use for your olive tree pruning is shears. Make sure you get pruning shears instead of grass shears, as the latter should be used for trimming your lawn. Some people call pruning shears hand pruners because they’re a handheld device. You get two handles coated in rubber or another soft material. Each handle is attached to a blade.
There are three types of shears, and the way you use them depends on the type. For instance, parrot-beak pruners have dual blades in a concave shape. They’re ideal for cutting stems, especially narrow ones. Bypass pruners have blades that go over the other (or bypass), with one blade that’s concave at the bottom and the other that’s convex. These work like cutting with scissors. Then there’s anvil pruners. These single-bladed shears can slice into tree branches, even those that are thicker.
Most of the time, you’ll use bypass shears, which can cut growing branches and stems with a diameter of an inch or under. All shear types may have blades with titanium coating, carbon steel blades, or stainless steel blades.
Those with titanium coating won’t corrode. They’re also lightweight and durable. Carbon steel blades can stain and corrode, but they’re good at distributing heat. They’re also quite malleable. Stainless steel blades lack durability. What they do have is good heat distribution and a low likelihood of corroding.
Step 2: Prune Not to Cut, but to Shape
Okay, so you bought your new pruning tools. Now it’s time to use them.
When you prune a tree, you’re not blindly cutting. You should always have a goal in mind. Usually, it’s to cut down on branches or stems that have gotten too long. When growths become weak or die, you want to remove these as well.
When you’re pruning then, it’s to shape the tree. The best olive trees are those that look like a martini glass. These trees have a triangular shape to the growth and a long, sturdy trunk. Now, the shape you’re envisioning does not mean a literal martini glass. You don’t have to cut your tree to flat sides all the way around. Instead, use the martini glass as your guideline when shaping. You’re aiming for upwards angles and an overall lateral direction. You don’t want a lot of density with the branches, just enough that light can permeate through.
Your olive tree will then be in top shape (both literally and figuratively) to develop fruit, or the olives themselves. This happens after the tree’s third birthday, sometimes its fourth. Without pruning, you might not get olives from the tree, or at least not as many as you could.
How do you go about pruning anyway? You’ve got the tools, but what’s the technique? That’s a good question, especially if you’re new to this. You want to cut at an angle or slant with your pruning shears. This slant should match the angle the branches grow in.
Use the bigger, lateral branch (more on this in the next step) as your guide. You want to cut up to it but not into this branch itself. When you make a cut to your olive tree, do so with confidence. Small stubs and other cutting errors are not ideal and could hurt the tree if you make mistakes like this often enough.
Why does it matter to cut at a slant? It’s not solely for the look of the tree. This cutting technique can prevent branch infections, as you keep water from seeping in where you don’t want it, such as the fresh cut you just made.
You also don’t want to begin pruning your tree too early. For the first two years you grow your olive tree, leave it alone. We’re serious here. Don’t do anything to the tree unless something is obviously wrong, such as a wonky trunk. The tree should grow to about 3.3 feet high within a few years if you don’t touch it. Lateral branches can also develop, between three and four of them.
Step 3: Maintain Lateral Branches, Except the Weak Ones
Okay, now let’s talk more about lateral branches, as we said we’re going to. When we refer to lateral branches, we’re talking about a type of secondary branch. These sprout directly from your olive tree’s trunk, making them thick, sturdy, durable branches. They begin as twigs, but, with time, they become the tree’s foundation.
Lateral branches comprise your olive tree’s canopy, so you can see why they’re so important. You can also probably grasp why you want to prune these especially carefully. Getting overzealous could result in holes in your tree.
As we said before, your olive tree will have three lateral branches at the very least if you give it a few years to grow uninterrupted. Some even have four. These are healthy trees, which is what you want.
In some cases, olive trees may only have two lateral branches. While this isn’t great, it’s not necessarily a cause for concern, either. You’ll want to prune the vertical or weak branches (we’ll explain more shortly), but otherwise, the less you do in this case, the better. Hopefully, by the time you come back to your tree the next year, it should have grown two more lateral branches.
What do lateral branches even look like, you’re wondering? They tend to sprout at an upwards angle, moving slightly away from the tree’s base. If you can’t find them by eyeballing your olive tree, then we have another method you can use. Trace your eyes up from the trunk of your tree. What are the first branches that connect to the trunk? Those are your lateral branches. They tend to have smaller branches attached. Sometimes lateral branches can grow in at a slightly odd angle, but you want to keep them attached.
It’s only when the lateral branches are weak, even tired, that you want to cut them. This can take years, as your olive tree has to mature quite a bit. The best way to tell you have weak lateral branches is to monitor the last time they’ve had fruit for you to harvest. If it’s annually, then keep the lateral branch. However, if you can’t recall the last time those branches had fruit, then you might want to cut them. You’d use your hand saw or even your chainsaw for this depending on the thickness of the lateral branch.
Remember, you want to be more judicious about what you cut and what you leave when it comes to the lateral branches. That’s doubly, even triply true if your olive tree doesn’t even have three lateral branches.
Step 4: Cut Away Vertical Branches
Now that we’ve discussed lateral branches, next, we want to move on to vertical branches. These are about as opposite as lateral branches as you can get. For one, vertical branches grow further from the trunk of the olive tree than lateral branches. They’re also slimmer and tend to point upwards while lateral branches are thick and fan outwards. Further, vertical branches are not nearly as important as lateral branches.
At the top of your olive tree is where you’ll often find the weakest and skinniest vertical branches. You don’t want to keep these. You also want to take an objective look at your olive tree from a distance. Remember to keep that optimal shape in mind, that of a martini glass. Often, vertical branches can get in the way of you achieving that shape, so those branches will have to get removed, too.
Now, you don’t want to cut off every last vertical branch on your tree, as that would be bad. You just want to clear the density of the tree. Most gardeners follow this rule: if a bird can get through the tree when in flight, your tree is at the right density. A tree that’s too dense will need more pruning.
If you do make a mistake and go a little crazy with pruning your vertical branches, this isn’t the end of the world. Since they’re thin, they tend to grow back easily enough. Plus, your olive tree will grow fruit on its lateral branches, not the vertical ones. Therefore, you’re not affecting tis fruit-bearing potential if you cut off too many vertical branches. Your tree will just look a little naked, but hey, it happens, especially to beginners. Just realize what you did and avoid making the same mistake for next time.
Step 5: Don’t Keep Suckers on the Olive Tree
Okay, so you’ve maybe cut a lateral branch, but probably not. You certainly trimmed the vertical branches. Are you done pruning your olive tree? Not exactly. Before you finish for the day, you want to look for suckers on your olive tree.
Suckers are small stems, and they’re often very young. They come from your olive tree’s trunk, but they’re not vertical branches in progress. They’re definitely not lateral branches, either. Suckers may develop at weird angles, such as down or up. They can interrupt the shape you worked hard to achieve on your olive tree, making your martini glass look like a martini shaker.
Unfortunately, suckers do more than just detract from your olive tree’s appearance. They can also hurt the tree, sucking up nutrients and water. They’re not called suckers for nothing, after all.
There’s no need to keep suckers on your olive tree, then. They’re disadvantageous to the tree and they’re kind of ugly, too. Your pruning shears can slice away suckers like they’re nothing, and that’s what you want to do. While you shouldn’t prune the rest of your olive tree often at all, you can get rid of suckers anytime you see them. In fact, you might want to visit your tree every few months just to see if new suckers have grown in. The faster you can get to them, the less damage they can do.
How often should you prune your olive tree?
It might seem tempting to go outside and trim a stray branch here or a loose stem there each time you visit your olive tree. You must resist. You’re only supposed to prune annually. Yes, just once.
Wait until spring arrives. You can also prune in the summer if you want, but not both seasons. Don’t wait until fall, as that’s when olive trees get ready for harvesting olives. You’re too late at that point.
While some trees do grow quickly and need lots of consistent pruning, olive trees aren’t one of them. They’re gradual growers. By over-pruning, you’re getting rid of too much of what the tree needs.
How can you keep your pruning tools clean?
You never want to prune your olive tree (or maintain any other tree, really) with tools that are anything but clean and sharp. Dull tools won’t cut effectively, which can hurt your tree’s health. Your inaccurate cuts and doubling back to areas that didn’t cut through the first time can also affect the tree’s shape.
If you’re worried about the sharpness of your pruning tools, head to the hardware or gardening stores nearest you. While you do have to pay to get your tools sharpened, it’s worth it. As for keeping the tools clean, that’s something you can do yourself at home. You need isopropyl alcohol for the job. Dunk the tools in the alcohol, let them sit for upwards of 30 seconds, and then try them. They’re disinfected and ready to use!
What is the best fertilizer for olive trees?
Another facet to the care of your olive tree is fertilizing it. You don’t want to use just any fertilizer, though. Rather, you should favor a nitrogen fertilizer. Of all the nutrients that your olive tree may lack, nitrogen is at the top of the list. Without enough nitrogen, a deficiency could develop. This prevents your olive tree from growing leaves, fruit, and flowers.
If your tree is younger, so not quite two years yet, then make your nitrogen fertilizer with water and urea, an ounce of the stuff. Fertilize every month. If you have a mature tree, then combine compost (50 pounds) with urea (two pounds). You only want to fertilize your mature olive tree in the spring, when it begins growing.